Dive Brief: 

  • At least one state pared back its free college program and another warned students it may have to do the same because of pandemic-related budget challenges. 

  • Oregon lawmakers cut funding for its promise program by $3.6 million in mid-August, leading to some students having their grants revoked. New York, meanwhile, may reduce its free tuition scholarships or prioritize current recipients, according to the program’s website

  • Free college proposals will likely take a back seat to other budget priorities for the time being, experts said, though it is unclear how existing programs will be affected. 

Dive Insight: 

The free college movement was picking up steam before the pandemic hit the U.S. Sixteen states have enacted free college programs, and several others have extensive scholarship programs, according to the Campaign for Free College Tuition

But the economic turmoil may dampen some of that activity. “State budgets are obviously decimated by the pandemic,” said Sandy Baum, a nonresident senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a left-leaning think tank. “It won’t be surprising if, like lots of other programs, these programs are vulnerable during this crisis.” 

Oregon lawmakers stripped $3.6 million from its promise program, which allows high school graduates or adults who complete their GED to attend community college tuition-free. It’s a last-dollar program, meaning it covers tuition costs after all federal aid and scholarships are applied, though each recipient is guaranteed at least $1,000. 

Now, the state is revoking awards given to students whose families were expected to contribute $22,000 or more to their educational costs, according to the program’s website. The change affected at least 1,000 students, according to a local media report. 

New York’s Excelsior Scholarship could also be impacted by the pandemic. It’s a last-dollar program that allows state residents whose families make up to $125,000 to attend any of the state’s public colleges tuition-free. 

According to its website, however, state budgetary issues could force officials to prioritize existing recipients for the awards or otherwise reduce them unless the state receives more federal funding. An Excelsior spokesperson did not respond to Education Dive‘s emailed request for comment Monday by publication time. 

Free college programs had staying power during the last economic downturn. According to a 2018 analysis from The Century Foundation, a left-aligned organization, six statewide free college programs that existed during the Great Recession grew their funding per full-time student at the time even though nationwide, state financial aid budgets were shrinking. 

Free college programs may have support because they are “designed as a kind of a contract, a commitment to students,” said Jen Mishory, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and author of the report. 

Some promise programs endured despite doubts they would. Washington state lawmakers indicated earlier this year that they are keeping their free college program, which went into effect for this academic year, even though the state is grappling with tax revenue shortfalls

And this summer, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham vetoed some of the cuts to the Opportunity Scholarship, a free college program she spearheaded last year. The plan allows high school graduates and adult learners to receive free tuition for two-year programs.

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